How we need this week’s poem, with its voice that calls for grace and saviors. Lucille Clifton, the Lilly Poetry Prizewinner and HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for decades, wrote “blake” and put it in her collection The Terrible Stories. But she didn’t read it to audiences very often, and HoCoPoLitSo recorded the only video of her reading this piece.
In the midst of the poems in The Terrible Stories, which address cancer, mastectomy, Biblical lust, and rage and despair over a history of slavery, this poem calls for a plume of hope.
Clifton said the poem was conceived after she had been living in the South for a while, remembering and living with its history of slavery and racist violence. She was being driven to her home in Columbia, watching out the car windows at the trees flashed by, and remembering William Blake and his visions.
Blake, a poet and artist who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrote that when he was 9, he saw angels in the trees. In fact, Blake said he had visions almost daily, and angels figured heavily in those mystical experiences. He often painted angels, especially in his illustrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Celestial beings fluttered through his poems, guarding him, surveying the world, watching over children. The world has made famous his line: “Cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
While Clifton didn’t often write about angels or visions directly, she always had her eyes open. In the same collection, Clifton writes about the female fox that often sat by her window, how they watched each other through the glass and acknowledged each others’ power.
“child I tell you now it was not/ the animal blood I was hiding from,/ it was the poet in her, the poet and /the terrible stories she could tell.”
“blake” is not an inspirational poem to be put on a flowery background and posted to Instagram. There are terrible stories in it, in the leaden way Clifton writes “the face/ of what we have become” and “this hunger entering our loneliness.”
But she ends the poem by coming home, “back north,” and searching the branches for poems.
Tonight, HoCoPoLitSo will host its tenth annual Lucille Clifton Reading on Friday, Oct. 2, featuring Joseph Ross reading his work based on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s good to remember Clifton’s work this week and always. Her short lines and direct language could evoke whole other worlds, and her words both challenged and inspired readers.
Clifton’s line from “blake” about “the flutter that can save us” lingers with me. I’m watching the trees, waiting for poems or angels. Perhaps they are similar things.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
The Agony in the Garden is a small painting by William Blake, completed as part of his 1799–1800 series of Bible illustrations commissioned by his patron and friend Thomas Butts. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Luke which describes Christ’s turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and Crucifixion following Judas’s betrayal. In Blake’s painting a brilliantly coloured and majestic angel breaks through the surrounding darkness and descends from a cloud to aid and physically support Jesus in his hour of agony. The work is dominated by vertical lines, formed both from the trees and from the two arms of the angel. Two inner lines converge on Christ’s palms, evoking the nails driven through him during his crucifixion.
The Agony in the Garden was bequeathed by Blake collector Graham Robertson to the National Trust in 1948. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery the following year.